A Darker Shade of Pale, a Short Story
As the organ intro to "A Whiter Shade of Pale" blared from a pair of cracked 6 x 9 speakers mounted in the doors, Hugo Moseley wound the '60 Chevrolet Impala convertible through first gear. He popped the clutch, grabbed second and floored it. The big 348 cubic inch motor moaned when the dual line Holley four barrel cut in. Wind blew through his greasy hair and almost drowned out the music.
It was a hot and cloudless mid-August Saturday night circa 1967 in Dismal, South Carolina. The five Blue Ribbons he drank earlier in the day had nothing to do with the reason he shifted from a screaming second to a sedate fourth. It was the configuration of the headlights and running lights that had suddenly appeared in his rear view that had caused him to back off the gas. Stacked headlights meant a '67 Ford and the Sheriff's office had bought six or seven of them this year.
Hugo let the weight of the big car slow it and stayed off the brakes figuring that hitting them just showed some sort of guilt on his part and would ensure that Johnny Law would pull him over. Still, he stared at the lights as they closed and it was partially his concentration on them that caused him to stray over the line into the other lane. Hugo panicked, over corrected, and then cursed his bad luck when he saw the blues come on. He slugged down the last of the half pint of Jack Black as he shouldered the big car to the shoulder. He reared back and heaved it as far as he could into the woods.
Deputy Robert Benson had been with the Dismal County Sheriff's Office six months and had yet to make an arrest. When the gleaming red Chevrolet screamed out of the juke joint up the road he wondered if his luck had just changed. He knew the car and the man most likely driving it. The car veered across the center line as he closed and Robert smiled.
"Fish in a barrel," Robert thought as he pulled in behind the Chevy and saw Hugo throw the liquor bottle into the woods. He grabbed the mic and called it in.
Robert stepped out of his cruiser, first adjusting his duty belt and then the navy blue Stetson on his head. He approached the car.
"License and registration," Robert said.
Instead, Hugo popped the door. Robert stepped back, his hand finding the comfort of the holstered, four-inch Smith & Wesson Model 10, and ordered Hugo to stay in the car.
Hugo swiveled in his seat, burped, and then squinted into the flashlight beam and recognized him.
"Oh, it's just you," Hugo said. "I thought I was a goner!"
"I need to see your license and registration," Robert repeated.
"Hell, Robbie, you know I ain't go no license!"
"How much you had to drink?"
"Two beers...You ain't fixing to try to lock me up are you, Robbie?" Hugo sneered and stood up. He swayed before steadying himself on the car door, and Robert wondered how far away his back-up was.
"Hugo, you smell like a brewery and you don't appear to be in any condition to drive."
"Well I'm sure as hell in no shape to walk," Hugo said and turned to get back in the car.
That line delivered in a different tone and by someone other than Hugo Moseley might have been funny, but Robert was having none of it. He told Hugo he was under arrest for driving under the influence and grabbed his arm, spinning him around and causing Hugo to loose what semblance of balance he had.
When Corporal Jimmy Hinson pulled up the two men were wrestling in the ditch. In the lights from Robert's car, Jimmy ran to the fight. He saw that Hugo had managed to get the upper hand and had rolled over on top of the deputy. Jimmy's hand went automatically to the black leaded sap he carried in his back pocket and when he stepped up behind Hugo he popped him once in the temple. It was over.
"I'm surprised he blew a 27." Robert said at the Sheriff's Office.
"Well, he threw up on my shoes during the breathalyzer test and anyone who does that to me gets an extra five points." Jimmy said.
The two men sat upstairs in the squad room drinking black coffee and talking about Robert's first arrest. Robert assumed Jimmy was kidding about the BA test but didn't really much care if he wasn't.
"I never realized how hard it is to put a set of cuffs on a fellow that don't cooperate," Robert said.
"The problem was, you thought you knew the guy and even though he was a bully all seven years he was in high school, you didn't want to hurt him," Jimmy smiled, then got serious. "I was close and you were lucky, but it could have got ugly and quick. Never let them get the advantage."
Jimmy sipped his coffee then took a drag off his Camel and thumped some ash in the Maxwell House coffee can half filled with sand that served as an ashtray.
"You'll go to the Academy sometime next year and they will teach you all sorts of defensive tactics and take downs."
"That will be great," Robert said.
"Most of it won't work," Hugo said and he slid the sap across the table. "Be judicious, but don't let any SOB get the upper hand. You have no idea what they might do..."
"We been friends a long time,Robert, and I think you will make a great deputy but this is a big county and you can't always count on a 10-78 being close enough. Take care of yourself first." Jimmy took the last drag off the Camel and crushed it in the sand. "These people ain't worth your life, that's all I'm saying."
"I hear you," Robert said. The two finished their coffee in silence and headed downstairs, walked outside, and drove into the night.
Hugo had been yelling for about half an hour when Tommy Hilton, Dismal County jailer meandered back to his cell near the drunk tank. Tommy never slept good any more and this week he had had back problems that kept him from sleeping much during the day. The sour mash his cousin had dropped off yesterday in a quart mason jar had helped some with the pain, but now his head hurt and he was in no mood for Hugo's shenanigans.
The old jail was built right after the Civil War and there were those who said Tommy helped build it. He had been the night jailer as long as anyone cared to remember and managed to keep his job regardless of who got elected sheriff, no easy feat in southern politics.
"Let me out of here, you old fart," Hugo said.
"Not happening," Tommy said. "Settle your red neck ass down and get some sleep."
That was when things went south.
Hugo threw a cup of water through the bars into Tommy's face. He cackled about that as Tommy shuffled quietly down the hall out of sight. When Tommy got to the end of the hallway he stopped at a sink and dried his face with some rough paper towels and then smiled as he turned to the faucet . He twisted the handle to full and grabbed the connected garden hose that was used to hose out the cells when a prisoner tossed his cookies.
The electrical system in the old jail did not work great, the lighting was sub standard, there was no air conditioning and the heating was sporadic at best. What the building did have was great water pressure and Tommy used that on Hugo until he finally stopped cursing and rushing up to the bars. Hugo stood shaking with rage in the corner of his cell with his back to Tommy as cold water pounded the back of his head. Finally he raised his hands in surrender and Tommy stopped spraying him.
Without a word, Tommy dropped the hose on the floor and turned and walked down the hall to his office.
Teeth chattering more with rage than cold, Hugo took off his soaked shirt and pants and dropped them on the floor. He got the dry blanket off the top bunk and lay on the damp lower bunk. He covered himself and soon passed out.
Twenty minutes later Hugo jolted awake when Tommy hit him again with the hose as he lay in the bunk. When the soaking stopped this time, Tommy laughed and drug the hose down the hall.
Hugo picked up his clothes from the floor and carefully pulled the three Camels from his shirt pocket that Deputy Benson let him keep. One of them broke but the others were just wet. He put the two good cigarettes on the dry upper bunk and took the Zippo from his pants pocket. He knew it would be hours before he could smoke but he climbed up and sat on the edge of the bunk. Anger burned, resentment smoldered and then an idea for revenge flamed...
From "I Was There, A Memoir of a Small Town Reporter
I was working on a deadline in my office about three o'clock that morning when the call came over the scanner. If you've been in the business as long as I have, the voices on that scanner become background music until IT hits the fan. You might not be paying much attention, or any really, but when the big news happens you hear it in their voices. Not necessarily in volume, although I have heard those guys yell when the adrenaline flushes their systems like a junkie's heroin rush. No, it's just something in the tone. There's a somberness, a serious flavor that you learn to pick out.
I stopped mid-sentence on the new IBM Selectric, grabbed my notebook and pen off the desk and ran to my car. I was at the jail in two minutes, before any of the folks we call first responders today got there.
A little smoke seeped out of the upstairs window in the apex of the old building as I locked the brakes on my two year old Mustang and slid to a stop in the lot across the street. I ran around to the back entrance and saw the jailer just outside the door, staring into the building in a daze as if he didn't have a clue what to do.
Black smoke rolled out the opened door at the top and when a sudden breeze blew I saw it had smudged the white paint. Then I heard the screams.
"Let us out!" one man yelled.
"I can't breathe!" screamed another.
"Help us, Jesus!" pleaded a third.
The screaming continued as the smoke got thicker, changing from black to dark gray and then back to black. Some men simply cursed, some screamed for their mamas, and some screamed for God to help them.
We didn't know it yet, but there was no help for any of them that night.
In1967 the Dismal Sheriffs Office and County Jail was a concrete block structure located downtown a block away from the courthouse. The jail (with its drunk tank), the dispatch area and the office used by the Sheriff himself was downstairs. The Chief deputy, detectives, and patrol officers used the space upstairs.
For decades County Council had turned down request after request for improvements to the structure including a sprinkler system. Enough money was budgeted for a coat of paint inside and out every couple of years but that was about it. There was very little in the jail itself to burn, but the fire that started somewhere in the drunk tank spread between bunks and eventually to the multiple coats of paint on the walls.
We learned later that the smoke from the paint was toxic.
Back then the fire department was made up of mostly volunteers and I heard the siren on top of the fire station start up as it shattered the otherworldly stillness of the night. The one paid fireman had to wait for men to show before pulling out.
I was there when Deputy Hinson roared around the corner of the building and jumped out of his cruiser. Funny some of the tiniest things you notice, but I remember the big Ford's front end bouncing up and down after Hinson bailed.
The jailer and the dispatcher were standing together just outside the entrance staring at the smoke. I didn't hear the question Hinson asked the jailer, but I saw him snatch the big brass key from his hand and run into the burning building.
He was probably only in there for a couple of minutes but it seemed like forever before he stumbled back out coughing, most of his face black like an Al Jolson impersonator. Then he dropped to his knees and crawled back in.
It was two hours before the fire department cleared the smoke. I was there when they carried his body and twelve others from the building.
Even after fifty years the place still reeked of death and desperation.
"How many died?" Smith asked. Tall and thin, she appeared behind the four male recruits after the class began and hovered at the back, towering over the group.
"Twelve prisoners and one deputy sheriff died that night," retired Chief Deputy Robert Benson said.
Since the restoration of the old jail, Robert always came back from retirement to take new hires through as part of their orientation.
It was important.
"And no one burned, right?" She seemed more mature than the others, but also seemed oddly innocent somehow.
"They all died of smoke inhalation," Robert said. "including my best friend, who died trying to get that door open."
"It wasn't your fault," Smith said.
But it was. He had locked up the drunk driver that night and let him keep the cigarettes and lighter. He'd never told anyone. Never admitted it.
"Okay, y'all grab a cup and hey, let's be careful out there," Robert said. Smith laughed but the others just filed out. Alone, he closed his eyes, and once again heard the anguished pleas for help.
Robert locked the place down and walked over to new building to meet with the Sheriff.
"That Smith gal seems the best of the five," Robert told the Sheriff.
"What?" the Sheriff looked puzzled.
"Smith, you know tall, blonde, good looking in a Patty Duke kind of way."
"Robert, I only hired four deputies," the Sheriff said "and none of them are female".
Note from the author:
The photo is a prompt for a short story contest. The story was supposed to be exactly 200 words. First, I wrote the epilogue and then fashioned the story around it.
Also, I haven't been on Hubpages in a while but I have been posting some stories over at The Creative Exiles. Drop by sometime!